30 May 2018

Russia: Choosing A Side In Syria

May 25, 2018: The government has made it clear that it sides with Israel when it comes to Syria and a long-term peace deal. Israel has not attacked any Russian targets with its growing air offensive against Iranian forces. During May the Russian president met separately with the Israeli and Syrian leaders and apparently worked out terms of a peace deal that Israel and the Assads can live with. Turkey is willing to follow as long as Turkish border security measures (a security zone on the Syrian side of the border patrolled by Turk supported Syrian militias) are left alone. In the northeast the Syrian Kurds could have their autonomy as long as they kept the peace. Basically the Russian proposal is that “all foreign troops” leave Syria. That will include the Americans but not those that now have treaty rights (Russia has an airbase and part of a port). Israel insists that Iran have no treaty rights and get out completely, along with their local affiliate Hezbollah. The Americans have no interest in a permanent presence they just want to deal with some Islamic terrorists and then leave.

To achieve such a deal the remaining rebel groups have to be destroyed. These holdouts are mainly Islamic terrorist groups aligned with al Qaeda or ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The Kurds and Americans, with some help from Iraqi forces, are going after the remaining ISIL personnel in eastern and northeastern Syria. The Assads, with the help of Iranian mercenaries and Hezbollah, are clearing areas along the northern and southern borders of remaining rebels. The only problem with this plan is that Iran refuses to leave. The Russians have no certain fix for this although the Israelis are trying their best to destroy all Iranian bases in Syria. This approach, which not perfect, is having a noticeable impact on Iran.

Russia reported (thanks to their extensive air defense radar coverage of western Syria) that Israel appeared to have used 23 fighter-bombers to launch 60 air-to-ground missiles or smart bombs against Iranian targets after Iran launched an unsuccessful May 10 rocket attack on Israeli bases in the Golan Heights. Russia also reported that Israel appears to have used ten ground launched missiles (probably the Delilah missile, which is usually launched from aircraft). Delilah is one of several loitering missiles Israel has developed. Spike NLOS is one of those in wide use. These can search for a target, with a human controller approving a target via a datalink, which also provides video of hits on targets, which Israel sometimes releases to the media. This was the case with the latest airstrikes, which destroyed many Syrian air defense systems (S-200 and Pantsir). Russia explained away the Pantsir loss by asserting that the vehicle was resting.

Russia has other problems with the Assad government and Iranian mercenaries, especially when it comes to handling peace deals with rebels. Russia insists on honoring these deals while the Assads and Iranians prefer to modify these “safe passage” deals. These terms include civilians and disarmed fighters (from a surrendered rebel area, like the ones around Damascus moving to other rebel held territory in the north). Often Russian security forces are in charge of security for the assembly and movement of the surrendered rebels and the Russians see that job as including protecting the surrendered rebels (most of them civilians) until they reach their destination. The Assads and Iranians have a different approach which includes interrogating many of the surrendered rebels and seizing those who are thought to contain useful information or are believed to have been too successful at killing Assad and Iranian personnel. During these “purges” of the surrendered rebels there is also a lot of theft as those doing the purging steal portable valuables. The Assads and Iranians also believe that civilians who stay behind can be “purged” as well even though the peace agreements forbid that. Russia believes these practices are counterproductive as it makes rebels less willing to accept a surrender dead. The Assads and Iranians are not bothered much by that and are willing to slaughter pro-rebel civilians as well as the armed rebels when there is no willingness to surrender. There have been some armed confrontations between Assad or Iranian forces and Russians over this. The Russians tend to prevail. As a result a growing number of surrender negotiations include rebels insisting that Russian forces handle the evacuation, movement and protection of the civilians and disarmed rebels. This sort of thing is another reason why the Russians maintain good relations with the Israelis and are have a difficult time doing the same with Iran.

The Assads need the Russians and Iranians to defeat the remaining rebels. The Russians provide air support that Iran cannot. Since mid-2015 Russian warplanes have accounted for most of the airstrikes supporting the Assad forces. So far that comes to about 6,900 air strikes in total and only 14 percent (nearly all of them Russian) against ISIL targets. The air strikes by Assad aircraft were made possible by Russian logistical and technical support. Again, Iran could do little to help with this. The Assads won’t say it, but they, and most Syrians (pro and anti-Assad) would like the Iranians gone. The Assads now control about half of Syria and the Kurds and Turks about a third. The 50,000 or so Iranian mercenaries are technically part of the Syrian armed forced but in fact report to Iranian officers. Iran could take control of territory but that would make it more of a target for Israeli airstrikes and less able to assert that it is only there to help the Assads put down the rebellion.

Other Problems In Syria

For a while (before making deals with Israel) Russia tried to dissuade Israel and its Western allies from attacking more Syrian targets, especially those that put its high tech weapons to the test because so far these electronic and anti-aircraft systems have proved ineffective against Israeli attacks and probably won’t do much better against the Americans. This is bad for business, as Russia has been touting the combat experience in Syria to get more sales for their new stuff. It would also be disastrous for Russian diplomacy which has portrayed Russia as a powerful and technically advanced ally for Syria, Iran and Turkey. Although Russia talks tough against Israel and the Americans it does not want to take that any further, nor does it want to appear like Russia is backing off. Russia is in an embarrassing situation and not getting much sympathy from anyone, not even Russians back in Russia.

There have been some major embarrassments. The February incident where over 200 Russian military contractors died when they tried to seize a small base in eastern Syria containing American troops did not trigger calls for revenge among Russians. Instead the attitude was that these guys took a chance to make a lot of money and it didn’t w0rk out. There are a lot of dangerous jobs in Russia that pay well to compensate for the risk. Those who do that work are opportunists, not patriots. So the government has to go easy in Ukraine and Syria. Israel seems more aware of this than most Middle Eastern powers. That is partly because Israel has a large Russian minority, courtesy of a lot of Russian Jews coming to Israel since the 1980s and keeping in touch with folks back home.

Another aftereffect of the 200 contractor deaths was Russia revealing how many Russian military personnel have served in Syria since mid-2015. It was 48,000, and that includes army, navy and air force. Not included are contractors, who are civilians, even if they took on some of the most dangerous jobs and suffered more casualties than the military personnel. Out of those 48,000 Russian military personnel who have been in Syria (some for less than a day, few for more than six months) only about 60 have died in combat so far. There have been half as many military contractors serving in Syria and they have suffered nearly 500 dead. No official numbers of military contractor fatalities have been released but Russian volunteer organizations have tried to keep track of the funerals or other indications of young men dying in Syria and it is clear that being a military contractor is a lot more dangerous. The point here is that there are still some Russians willing to take dangerous combat jobs but there are not enough them to maintain the million man military Russian leaders want.

Corruption Cures

The government may not have a lot of success reducing corruption but the extent of the corruption is documented. The government reported that in 2017 the number of corrupt incidents in the government reached 6,500 and involved $30 billion in spending. The figures for 2016 were 3,800 incidents and $15 billion. Most of the corruption was in the defense and space program budgets. This makes sense because these two areas, especially ship building and development and construction of satellite launcher rockets and ballistic missiles, have, since the 1990s, been noted for their corruption and competence problems.

The corruption angle was made clear when the government openly sought solutions to the seemingly intractable problems with building warships on time, on budget and without serious defects. While many other nations with large navies, like the United States, have similar (although less catastrophic) problems what is most embarrassing is how China is proving to be the most competent builder of warships. China can turn out carriers, large destroyers and submarines faster than anyone else and do so on time, on budget and apparently without a large number of defects. A Russian study of the problem concluded that the main differences between Russia and China was that corruption in warship construction was always more of a problem in Russia and it got worse after the Soviet Union collapsed and key managers and technical people were free to find better jobs elsewhere. That loss of talent left Russian shipyards with an older, less capable and more corrupt workforce and management. The other difference is that China, starting in the late 1970s, created a market economy while maintaining a communist police state government. This included creating from scratch a world class commercial ship building industry. The Russian communists were too late and too inept in trying to establish a market economy and that led to the collapse of the communist police state in Russia. All this is very embarrassing for most Russians, especially those running the country today.

Getting Competitive

Years of curbing oil production have finally worked and the world oil price is now headed for $80 a barrel. Unfortunately for the traditional major producers (who have cut production to get the price up) the rising oil price mainly benefits non-OPEC (oil cartel) nations like the United States and Canada that are doing a lot of fracking. Five years of low oil prices forced the frackers to become more efficient to remain profitable. Thus there is more profit, and incentive to increase production as the world oil price increases. Because of this traditional major producers, like Russia, are not seeing enough increased oil income to recover from the damage five years of lower oil prices have caused. Thus Russian estimates of GDP growth continue to be low (about two percent a year) and now the Americans are imposing more sanctions and these are expected to make economic growth in Russia even more difficult. Russia tried to adapt to the four years of sanctions but only had limited success because of the more fundamental problems with the Russian economy (corruption, shortages of skilled personnel and a persistent inability to compete with foreign nations (especially China and Europe).

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